Across recent months much has been written in this blog about dog attention. We've sliced it, diced it; some might say we've beaten it to death. Which simply reflects the amount of emphasis good obedience trainers put on getting their dogs to focus on them. During heeling. While the hand signals are being given. Teaching. Reinforcing. Correcting. Proofing.
Dog attention is the bedrock of a solid foundation for competition obedience performance.
As the blood, sweat and tears are shed trying to reinforce the four-legged partner's attention, all too often the flip side is being neglected. I'm talking about the handler's attention to the dog. More often than not it's ho-hum, if it's thought of at all. Here are two real-life examples of how sloppy that side of the equation can be.
The problem can be strikingly apparent during practice for the group exercises (long sits and downs). That's coffee klatch time. And I'm not even talking about out-of-sight sits and downs. I'm talking about Novice sits and downs where all of us are lined up directly across the ring from our dogs. I wish I had $5 for every time I've participated in the following little scenario.
"Yackety-yak." Ditzy So-and-So's dog goes down on the sit. "Yackety-yak."
I rudely interrupt the riveting conversation. "Hey, uh, Ditzy," I say, "your dog's down."
"Oh!" Ditzy exclaims. She snaps to, hurries over there and fixes her dog. Then she returns . . . "Yackety-yak."
And when the dog never becomes solid on the group exercises, guess who gets blamed.
Then of course there's the socialization that so often goes on during scent article rub-up time between handler and judge. (The judge, by the way, should know better.) While the pleasantries are being exchanged, Fluffy is gazing vacantly around, having totally lost focus.
Such little focus-losing, NQ-inviting interludes don't have to happen. I'm having none of it. Without being rude, the moment I pick up the article I begin looking down past my left shoulder, talking to my dog while I hot-scent the article. Judges get it. They understand. I have yet to have a judge strike up a conversation while I'm in my holding-my-dog's-attention mode.
Once I figured out that I owe my dog as much attention as I ask of him -- and it took eons to penetrate -- I came up with an "exercise" that I practice myself and encourage my students to adopt.
I regard every foray into the ring (in trials, matches and practice) as a "seamless exercise." It starts several minutes before I expect to be called into the ring. When the team before us is about halfway finished with their run, I establish two-way focus with my dog.
If the order of the exercises in the ring we're about to enter begins with anything other than a heeling exercise, I first heel my dog a little bit, then we settle down to play. Down means just that; I'm on my knees doing light roughhousing and tugging on the leash. Our game is going on fairly close to the ring -- just far enough away so as not to disturb the dog that's already in there. Ideally our game terminates when the steward calls us to enter the ring. I jump up and in I go with a dog that's all wound up.
On the other hand, if the first order of business will be a heeling exercise, I reverse the order. First we play. Then, as the team preceding us exits the ring we begin to heel, continue while the judge gets a drink of water and does whatever housekeeping she has to tend to. Then we heel to the gate.
Once we enter the ring my goal is absolute, sustained focus on my dog until we exit that ring. Specifically, I don't permit myself so much as a glance outside the ring. The first time I catch myself sneaking a glance I assume, in terms of the standard of self-discipline I've set for myself, that I've flunked.
Sustaining that level of unbroken focus for that long is more difficult than it sounds. But with practice it becomes easier and easier, a habit. And not surprisingly, the dog's focus improves as well.
What did come as a pleasant surprise was a benefit that had not occurred to me. A benefit that emanated directly from my regimen of extreme focus. I'll discuss that pleasant surprise in my next post.